Mrs. Daniel (Grace Fletcher) Webster (1781-1828)
Oil on canvas
Gift of the William L. Bryant Foundation; P.953.28
Considering his humble beginnings as a sign painter and his initial lack of formal training, Chester Harding achieved remarkable success as a portraitist in his lifetime. His extraordinary popularity—described during his day as “Harding fever”—brought him over one thousand portrait commissions. He began his career in the frontier towns of Kentucky and, following study abroad for three years, established a studio in Boston. Particularly after Gilbert Stuart’s death in 1828, he became the city’s most prominent portraitist. He painted two presidents and many other statesmen, including Daniel Webster, Dartmouth Class of 1801, whom he painted more than twenty times. Concerned primarily with likeness, Harding came to achieve great accuracy in his direct, restrained portraits. Harding’s renderings of female sitters are perhaps his most sympathetic, as demonstrated in this becoming portrait of Webster’s first wife, Grace Fletcher Webster (1781-1828). Harding accords lavish attention on her fashionable costume, which she wore for the cornerstone-laying ceremonies of the Bunker Hill monument in Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1825. Webster’s oration on that occasion has long been considered the most eloquent summary of the principles behind the American Revolution. This work is one of two virtually identical replicas of what is likely the original life portrait, completed in December 1827 and now in the Massachusetts Historical Society. Mrs. Webster died just weeks later, on January 21, 1828. Webster wrote to her brother, James William Paige, in February regarding the painting: “I cannot tell you how I value it. It was a most fortunate thing, that we had it done.” Harding also completed numerous portraits of Daniel Webster, including a life-size image of the orator that measured nearly nine by six feet and now hangs in the Boston Athenaeum.
Last Updated: 5/13/09